Ronnie McCluskey previews the heavyweight bout that everyone’s talking about.
For a while now, boxing’s blue riband division has been plagued by drudgery. Once populated by leading lights like Jack Dempsey, Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson, the heavyweight class has in recent years ceded its mantle as the sport’s flagship proving ground to the little guys, the middleweights and the welterweights. Reason? Don’t get me started. Suffice to say the action in the ring, and the characters inhabiting the landscape, have struggled to raise an eyebrow let alone a pulse.
On July 2, 2011, it seemed we might witness a bolt of lightning to jolt the division from its inertia. That evening in Hamburg, a gifted puncher named David Haye stepped into the ring with heavyweight ruler Wladimir Klitschko. After goading the champion for years, during which he stirred controversy by wearing a t-shirt depicting the decapitation of both Klitschko brothers at his own blood-slicked hands, Haye had the chance to fulfil a wild and ambitious promise. It was not to be. In fact, the much-hyped showdown was devoid of fireworks. Klitschko, enjoying a 32lb weight advantage, soundly outpointed the vain Londoner on a night when the heavens opened and the rain, perhaps fittingly, spattered those in attendance. The state of emergency would continue.
Four years on and just as before, an outspoken Brit will attempt to wrest the unified heavyweight crown from the man known as Dr Steelhammer. The dynamics, to be sure, are similar. Like Haye, Tyson Fury has spent the build-up badmouthing the venerable champion, always at pains to point out the gross contrast between the pair. That contrast is impossible to ignore. The clean-cut Klitschko is fluent in four languages, holds a doctorate in sports science from the University of Kiev – where his brother is now mayor – and looks less like a professional fighter than a stern-eyed statesman. The challenger to his throne is of Irish traveller stock, a born maverick who, in his most profane moments, calls to mind not a sportsman but a beery lout causing a scene in a Wetherspoon’s pub at two o’clock in the morning. In spite of this, there are many sides to Fury’s personality; and there’s even a chance the heedless outsider has enough in his arsenal to topple his august rival.
[quote_center]”The challenger to his throne…calls to mind not a sportsman but a beery lout causing a scene in a Wetherspoon’s pub at two o’clock in the morning.”[/quote_center]
Fury has been spoiling for a fight with Klitschko for some time, adamant that his formidable physical dimensions will trouble the long-reigning champion. On the face of it, it’s a solid argument. Fury is the younger and fresher of the two, and what’s more, he’s taller and heavier. The statuesque Klitschko – even at 39 he appears carved out of stone – has rarely encountered an opponent so physically gifted. He is accustomed to being the apex predator in a fight, superior not just by virtue of his craft but also his somatic inheritance. Perhaps when tested by a foe as big and strong as he is, the champion’s imperious assets will be annulled. Or perhaps…not. While Fury claims to be 6’9”, and Klitschko is said to stand at 6’6”, the height disparity looked negligible at many of the pre-fight pressers. Furthermore, I’m not convinced the weight difference will be a factor. Fury weighed 260lb for his last outing, but truthfully he could stand to lose a few pounds. In the past he has dipped as low as 248, like when he nimbly outpointed Kevin Johnson three years ago. After such a long and vigorous training camp, it’s conceivable he could tip the scales at 250 for this contest. For his most recent fight, Klitschko weighed 241, though he clocked 249 for a clinical defence against Francesco Pianeta two years ago. All told, modest height and weight advantages are unlikely to count for much against a seasoned boxer of Klitschko’s pedigree; Fury’s boxing skills, coupled with his youth and corresponding lack of wear and tear, may prove infinitely more advantageous.
The match is happening because Fury is the mandatory challenger for Klitschko’s WBO heavyweight title. The self-styled Gypsy King earned the number one position by defeating two tough if unspectacular fighters in official eliminators. While neither of these performances set the world alight – a forgettable tenth round stoppage of Dereck Chisora, a by-the-numbers eighth round retirement of Christian Hammer – most of the faithful wagering on Fury point to his awkwardness, his ability to switch between orthodox and southpaw stances, when making a case for victory.
It’s not just the switch-hitting; whichever way you slice it, Fury is an unconventional fighter. When he steps through the ropes, he does unexpected and outlandish things. He throws a jab and follows it up not with a customary right cross but with a looping uppercut or a hook to the ribcage or a bizarre hook-cum-uppercut planted into the pit of an adversary’s stomach. Tall boxers aren’t generally renowned for their body punching but Fury is an exception, and since he has deceptively quick hands, he needn’t be close to an opponent in order to land such shots; he can launch them from a whole arm’s length away. Another fine tool is the uppercut, which he has used to good effect against smaller foes (and, occasionally, himself).
The unbeaten contender does not possess a particularly powerful jab, preferring to flick it out rather than drive it through the target. The punch is more likely to cause nuisance than alarm, and Fury deploys the weapon regularly during fights, using it to keep his man occupied and off-balance and to line up a power punch of his own.
If there’s a chink in Fury’s armour, it’s his defence. He has a worrying habit of holding his gloves low, near his waistline. In the main, he relies on his footwork to keep him from harm. Often, when he suspects a punch might soon come his way, he’ll discharge a volley of shots as a means of self-defence. He’s also adept at tying an opponent up, leaning his gigantic torso across their back and thereby sapping them of energy. This is a trait he shares with the man in the opposite corner on November 28 – more on that later.
Almost all of Fury’s victims to date have been small, bovine men who were physically ill-equipped to match him. One notable bout was against Steve Cunningham, the athletic former two-time world cruiserweight champion. Cunningham may have surrendered a 44lb weight advantage in New York but he gave the bigger man all sorts of problems, felling him in the second before succumbing to a brutal knockout five rounds later. It wasn’t the first time Fury had been on the canvas. In 2011 the unheralded Bosnian Neven Pajkic sent him there, again in the second round and again the result of a crude overhand right. As in the Cunningham fight, Fury was able to weather the storm, halting the upstart’s Light Brigade charge in the following round.
It goes without saying that Wladimir Klitschko is several leagues above the Steve Cunninghams and Neven Pajkics of this world. He is 11 years removed from his last defeat, since which he has established himself as the preeminent heavyweight of his era. Regardless, and although he’s wide revered throughout Eastern Europe – most his fights sell out German football stadiums – there’s no escaping the fact that mainstream boxing fans have failed to warm to the man. You don’t have to cudgel your brain to come up with reasons why. You can point to his personality, which is colourless and urbane, or you can be cruel or maybe just honest in stating that he’s the best of a thoroughly forgettable crop; the sport’s purists would almost certainly cite his lack of career-defining victories. At a push, you could attribute his relative lack of popularity to the fact that he isn’t American. Lennox Lewis encountered the same problem. When Lewis outpointed Evander Holyfield in 1999, he became the first non-American to claim the lineal heavyweight championship since Swede Ingemar Johansson 40 years earlier. There’s a deep-rooted sense that the world heavyweight title simply belongs on North American soil.
The real nucleus of the matter might be this: fans of boxing, and in particular fans of heavyweight boxing, long to see one fighter brutalise another. They want to watch as an opponent is laid out on the mat, face-first or toppling backwards like a falling stack of Jenga, it doesn’t matter, but importantly they want to see the dominant fighter crush his adversary in the most garish manner possible. Nothing but glorious, cathartic violence will satisfy such bloodlust. Historically, fans have responded most to heavyweight pugilists of this ilk; Muhammad Ali is one of very few exceptions. Klitschko, despite knocking out 53 of 64 victims, does not fight in a manner befitting this destructive lineage. He captured gold at the 1996 Olympic Games and he has never truly graduated from the cogitative, point-scoring style favoured in the amateur system. Rather than seek to damage his opponent, he’s inclined to do what he can in order to prevent them from winning. Boxing is engineering. His power seems merely to be a fortuitous byproduct of his effort to prevail.
Not every Klitschko fight is dull, but most of them are. Now and again he’ll show the necessary mean-spiritedness, dishing out punishment as heavyweight champions ought to. In 2006 he systematically beat down Chris Byrd, stopping him in seven rounds. And just last year he repelled the assault of Bulgarian bulldog Kubrat Pulev, knocking him clean out in the fifth. Those bouts aside, it’s been mostly humdrum defence after humdrum defence. The Klitschko-Povetkin fight in 2013 was perhaps the nadir, a bout that surely ranks as the worst advertisement for big-time boxing in living memory. Klitschko has an inborn tendency to neutralise challengers by seizing them in a vice-like grip (this style of combat even has its own pejorative name: jab-and-grab) and that night in Moscow he used the tactic continuously to stymy his pyknic foe. What might have been a defining fight – Povetkin boasted a perfect 26-0 record and is known for his combative, crowd-pleasing style – descended into farce. If you happened to switch on the TV during the action, you would have been as likely to see a pair of oversized men locked in a clumsy waltz as the fierce exchange of punches. Klitschko won comfortably enough, bundling Povetkin to the canvas a few times for good measure, but the fight was a buzzkill, the victory sullied by the manner in which it had been achieved.
[quote_center]”Fans of boxing long to see one fighter brutalise another. They want to watch as an opponent is laid out on the mat, face-first or toppling backwards like a falling stack of Jenga.”[/quote_center]
Whatever you think of him, Klitschko is the division’s figurehead. He currently holds three of the four major world championship titles, in addition to the lesser IBO trinket and The Ring magazine belt, a bauble awarded to a fighter that magazine deems to be the division’s best. But just allow yourself for a moment to imagine a heavyweight division in which Tyson Fury rules the roost. Let that idea take root, let the thought distill. Are you thinking what I’m thinking? That it would be akin to Gotham City under the anarchic rule of The Joker? And while we’re sprinting with the analogy, has the phrase ‘introduce a little anarchy’ ever been so suited to a fighter as Tyson Fury? Raising hell is his raison d’être.
How realistic is a changing of the guard in Düsseldorf? It depends, like every prizefight does, on myriad intangibles and, most crucially of all, on how the combatants’ styles gel. How will each deal with his rival’s sheer size and strength? Will Fury box orthodox or southpaw or will he switch in an effort to faze the champion? Will it even matter? Switch-hitting is a nifty enough ploy, but only when it has the desired effect of discombobulating the opponent. With 67 fights on his slate, Klitschko is as long in the tooth as you can be in boxing terms.
Like Floyd Mayweather, the heavyweight champion has a way of settling into his natural fighting rhythm, and when he engages autopilot, he’s almost impossible to fluster. If Klitschko gets into such an imperturbable mode, and is able to stick his long, lordly jab in Fury’s face, the underdog has a mountain to climb, especially on hostile ground where he’ll receive no favours from the judges. That latter fact is troubling, because it seems that Fury’s best hope is to win on points. The doughty Gypsy King can punch, but he has rarely showcased the kind of irresistible power required to lay Wladimir out. On the flip side, it’s entirely plausible that Klitschko will find a path to Fury’s chin, will at some stage unleash a laser-like right cross to record KO#54. The worst case scenario, of course, is that we are condemned to another businesslike Klitschko title defence: a display of fistic subjugation, during which the champ neuters the enterprising young antagonist in the most repetitious manner possible. There’s something kinda forlorn about the prospect of Fury – reckless, free of spirit, almost child-like in his idiosyncrasies – being beaten in such formulaic fashion, like the sight of a wild stallion being corralled into a reserved parking space.
[quote_center]”Boxing is a sport composed of headstrong individuals, a sport whose very bedrock is the sediment of dogged will, sweat-lashed defiance and unwavering self-belief.” [/quote_center]
Whatever the outcome, I think we can be at least fairly certain that Fury will put up a good effort – meaning, in the most basic terms, that he will try. That might strike you as a self-evident statement, but you’d be surprised; many Klitschko opponents are doomed to their fate before the the champ’s entrance music – Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Can’t Stop – echoes through the bowels of the stadium. The mental element of combat sport is one that provokes much discussion, but the Lancastrian appears an unlikely candidate to freeze on the big stage. He is, after all, the latest in a long bloodline of fighters. His father is a stout, gravel-voiced man who once fought in bare-knuckle contests at travelling fairs and even graced the ring as ‘Gypsy’ John Fury. (The senior Fury also served four-and-half years at Her Majesty’s Pleasure for gouging a rival’s eye out at a car auction.) Tyson’s cousin Hughie is a promising unbeaten heavyweight set to make a cameo on the undercard of Saturday’s main event. And a distant relative is Bartley Gorman, perhaps the most famous bare-knuckle bruiser in recent memory and another who referred to himself as ‘King of the Gypsies.’ Fury is made from what he terms ‘the ultimate fighting steel.’ He is not the type that can be brought to heel; succumbing to fear or nerves doesn’t seem to be in his nature.
Boxing, though, is a sport composed of headstrong individuals, a sport whose very bedrock is the sediment of dogged will, sweat-lashed defiance and unwavering self-belief. Fury will require more than tenacity to win. If the stars are to align, he must execute a game plan that forcibly takes Klitschko out of his comfort zone, disrupting his methodical pattern of punching. He must implement his busy, bothersome jab while evading the champion’s own ramrod left. He must avoid being locked in the Klitschko clinch (or at the very least, hold his own when so enclasped), preferably by using his underrated mobility to make the older man chase. Perhaps most vital of all, he must land his power punch hard and often, enough to make the champ heedful of firing his own booming cannon of a right. On the page, these are straightforward objectives; in the ring, achieving them will entail all the danger of walking a high-tension wire.
This Saturday, the heavyweight division unspools into appreciable chaos or the good ship Klitschko continues on its seemingly unalterable course. Let’s all pray for an iceberg.